Sexting is the latest subject of “intersecting panics about technology, youth, sexuality, raunch culture and celebrity,” Australian author and research Nina Funnell wrote me after I heard her speak in Sydney in March. “While these panics all pre-existed the phenomenon of sexting, they have found new life and form” with it.
Along with her qualitative research on sexting among 16-to-25-year-olds, Nina looked at news reporting on the subject. She analyzed coverage in 738 newspaper articles in the Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US published during 2009. Here are some of her findings, which she presented in a talk I heard her give in Sydney this past March:
- Heterosexual bias: “Not one mentioned homosexual sexting. This is despite the fact that taking and sharing nude images is an established courtship practice within many parts of the gay community and that apps such as Grindr have popularized the practice considerably.
- Gender bias: “Not one specifically mentioned teen boys “‘ruining their reputations,’ although this was a commonly stated concern for girls. Numerous studies show that teen boys are producing images at almost the same rate as teen girls. While it is true that girls’ images get down-streamed (forwarded on) more often than those of boys, the rate of production of boys images is by no means trivial.”
- Racial bias: “Virtually all the photos associated with these stories featured white teenagers: particularly, slender, white, attractive teen girls.” If you only saw the newspaper photos, Nina said, “you would be forgiven for thinking that sexting was exclusively a “hot white girl phenomenon. This of course is not the case.” As a University of Texas study of sexting among Latino and African American 10-graders found that 20% of black and Hispanic teens have sent a sext and 30% have received one <http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=sexting-habits-of-teens-13-03-07>.
- “Purity vs. prospects”: The coverage indicated that concerns about sexting “tend to break down along clear gender lines. For girls, the main concerns were that sexting could lead to shame, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of reputation, bullying and regret. For boys, the fears tended to revolve around the belief that sexting could lead to prosecution or sex-offender registration and that this in turn could affect future prospects (particularly in terms of college admission and employment).”
The coverage pointed to a “problematic double standard” whereby “the risks for girls are discussed in relation to privacy and a female’s moral reputation, while the risks around boys are framed in terms of a boy’s legal standing as a public citizen.” Nina added that the sexting coverage reflected an odd blend of “paternalistic concern” for and “prurient interest” in the particular demographic of teenagers featured in photos and cases covered.
All in all, what her analysis indicated to her is that “the panic around sexting is highly scripted and conforms to a predictable narrative where girls are reduced to victims or sluts, boys are assumed to be aggressors, and same sex couples get ignored all together,” she wrote. That resonates with findings in the last decade by researchers Justine Cassell and Meg Kramer, then at Northwestern University, and reported in “High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online.” In it Cassell and Kramer write, “The myth of girls’ vulnerability online has unfortunate consequences, because it may result in positioning girls as disempowered with respect to technology.” And I would add: disempowered in general. And if girls are simplistically represented as potential victims, what message does that send about boys?
These are the kinds of questions that fuel good media literacy discussions at home and school – discussions that would serve both boys and girls well if they analyze news coverage for assumptions and biases about both sexes, as well as young people in general.